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”Race“ing Ahead — with Ellen McGirt

Ellen McGirt

This episode brings you an extraordinary conversation with Ellen McGirt, award-winning journalist who launched the race and leadership beat at Fortune.

As the creator of the raceAhead column, Ellen has dedicated her career to forging a path toward true inclusion — having interviewed top leaders across the globe.

Drawing on those experiences, we will explore race in America, predictions for the year ahead, and the timely issues that Black women face in the workplace and beyond — including leadership, race, social justice, mental health, and allyship.


Ellen McGirt

ELLEN McGIRT is a senior editor at FORTUNE, where she established the race and culture beat in 2016. In addition to long-form magazine features, she writes raceAhead, a daily column on race and inclusion in corporate life and beyond. The column has received a New York Press Club Award for commentary, a National Headliner Award, and the Steven Heller Prize for Commentary from the AIGA.

She is the co-chair of FORTUNE’s CEO Initiative and FORTUNE’S Most Powerful Women Summit. She is also the co-host of Fortune’s Leadership Next podcast.

In her past lives, she’s written for Money, Time, andFast Company, where she wrote or contributed to more than twenty cover stories and created the digital series The 30 Second MBA. Her reporting has taken her inside the C-Suites of Facebook, Nike, Twitter, Intel, Xerox and Cisco; on the campaign trail with Barack Obama and across Africa with Bono to study breakthrough philanthropy.

McGirt was the editor for Your First Leadership Job, a book published by Wiley in 2016. She attended Brown University. The New York City native now mostly lives in the Midwest with her family. Ask her about fly-fishing if you get a chance. [She/her/hers] @ellmcgirt

 

 

Celeste Headlee

Celeste HeadleeCeleste Headlee is a communication and human nature expert, and an award-winning journalist. She is a professional speaker, and also the author of Speaking of Race: Why Everybody Needs to Talk About Racism—and How to Do It, Do Nothing, Heard Mentality, and We Need to Talk. In her twenty-year career in public radio, she has been the executive producer of On Second Thought at Georgia Public Radio, and anchored programs including Tell Me More, Talk of the Nation, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. She also served as cohost of the national morning news show The Takeaway from PRI and WNYC, and anchored presidential coverage in 2012 for PBS World Channel. Headlee’s TEDx talk sharing ten ways to have a better conversation has over twenty million total views to date. @CelesteHeadlee

 


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Transcript of Ellen McGirt Interview

Celeste Headlee:

I wonder, the race and leadership beat is unique. There’s not a lot of media outlets that have something like that. Was that your idea?

Ellen McGirt:

No, and I wouldn’t ever have pitched it, to be honest. Fortune, like a lot of other media outlets, have done a pretty poor job covering race and leadership and the conversations around illusion historically. And I got a direct message on Twitter, out of the blue in late 2015 from my then editor, Clifton Leaf asking me if I would be willing to write a story for Fortune about why there were very few, if any, black men in the executive ranks in big corporations. And I was so surprised and blown away by the request. I had been to Fortune in a number of years, I’m a boomerang or came back after nine years away, and I thought what has happened under the Leaf regime that we’re ready to have this conversation?

Ellen McGirt:

So I signed up for a one-off and it was a tough, tough, emotional reporting adventure. There were men that I spoke to who had never been asked what it was like for them and what their experience was like. And men who had opted out of corporate life, researchers who had data that had been largely ignored, and it was such a landmark experience for me. We published it, it went well, it won an award. And out of nowhere, a corporate sponsor — PWC looking at you — came to us and said, “We want to support a daily conversation about race.” And it fell into my lap. And you know better than I do that nobody needs a daily newsletter about race in America.

Celeste Headlee:

I absolutely hear you, but there’s two sides to this, right? There is the importance of what you’re doing and writing about what you’re doing, but there’s also the emotional toll it takes on you to even have to report on things. How tough it is to be a black person in leadership or how tough it is to get credit for your own ideas and your own accomplishments when you’re a person of color in corporate America. How do you sustain it?

Ellen McGirt:

I don’t think I do always a good job. And I’m lucky in this weird way that the pandemic has saved me from myself. The pandemic forced me, like many people at Fortune, to take on other roles when the world changed and our revenue stream changed. So I went from a daily send to twice a week, and that was very helpful. But I felt from the beginning, surprised by the opportunity, the rich opportunity to have these conversations. And I pushed the boundaries of what I thought Fortune should be publishing. We covered police violence and shootings and death. And I’ve got a story about that to tell you later on. We covered terrible maternal outcomes for black women. We covered inequities in education.

Ellen McGirt:

We covered anything that happened to people from birth to C-suite. I felt like that was my beat. And it is painful. And I did not expect to see the rise of Donald Trump. I did not expect to have to write columns about Confederate monuments. I did not expect to have to dig into any of this stuff. And at some point, I think I vacillate from between being completely aware and on top of things and clear and clean and being completely numb and overloaded at the pointlessness of this all. So I never know how I’m going to feel from day to day.

Celeste Headlee:

And I feel like that’s a similar to what many other people just feel reading the headlines, right? Because you’ll have these incredible celebrations of black leaders, like Stacey Abrams after the Senate runoff in Georgia, and then you’ll see headlines that are talking about the horrible, for example, outcomes that black mothers face, or the in continuing and expanding inequities in healthcare, when it comes to black Americans. It’s this weird roller coaster ride to be a person of color in this country.

Ellen McGirt:

It is. And I know that you must feel this part of this too, is that what I didn’t expect was to create a community around the conversation. I’m not saying I have fans, I’m not even saying I’m the best reporter in the world, but what I am saying is that out of nowhere, what I didn’t expect race had found a community. And people who are very different from each other, some of whom work in corporate life, and some of whom don’t, some of whom are majority culture and some of whom aren’t, started to gather and support and share the information and talk about it, and notice when I wasn’t doing well. I had one reader a couple years ago, write to me and said, “I just did a word analysis of your last 17 columns, and you used the word grim 25 times, are you all right?”

Celeste Headlee:

Wow.

Ellen McGirt:

So that’s what keeps me going, is that I was able to identify an audience and I felt the energy of being able to give them reported good information that felt comfortable with, that got us all on the same page, even if it was just for a moment. And I know it feels crazy out there, but I know for a fact that RaceAhead readers know what critical race theory is and isn’t.

Celeste Headlee:

For our listeners who don’t know, let me very quickly say that you will likely never have taken any class that covered critical race theory. I never had to take critical race theory because I did not study race in our legal system in the United States. Critical race theory is at least a university, if not at a graduate level course, in most cases, and your children are not being taught it. Okay. Some of the things that have occurred during the pandemic, they say sometimes that when America gets a cold, black America gets the flu. And that’s sort of what we’ve seen over the course of the past couple years, not only did we see the disparities in the number of black Americans who were more likely… This is early on in the pandemic, more likely to get severe cases of COVID and then have hospitalizations and die from it.

Celeste Headlee:

Thankfully, that has changed. But we also saw in the corporate field that these surveys that showed us that black women actually, majority of them did not want to return to the office, that they found working from home that they were exposed to fewer microaggressions than they normally were. We have seen a real disparity in… I mean, a lot of people are feeling trauma and burnout, but it gets worse as you go through the underrepresented minorities, right? Women are suffering more burnout, more severely than men are in general, and black women are suffering burnout more than almost any other group.

Ellen McGirt:

Right.

Celeste Headlee:

I mean, how are we to make sense of what we’ve learned over the past couple years about African Americans in general, but especially black women?

Ellen McGirt:

Celeste, I wish the waiter would get back here with my glass of wine so I could really dig in. I would enter that question sideways. How do we to wrestle with what we haven’t learned? The impulse to keep diversity promises, the impulse to resurrect projects, products and services and ideas, the impulse to build back better businesses going in new directions and new markets, like that quest for innovation requires black women’s leadership and press sense. And I am not sure that I’m seeing the kinds of investments in that leadership that we need to see in order to make sure that black women can reenter the marketplace on their own terms. And sometimes that’s going to mean investment VC money. I’ve seen a lot of really promising activity with black and brown check writers who are preparing to invest in good ideas, a lot of which are coming out of corporate spaces or people with corporate training or legal training, but not nearly enough, not nearly enough.

Ellen McGirt:

And I’m not sure that I’m seeing the investments that we need to see in the solutions that will make more equitable workplaces that are differentiated. That’s the whole intersectional thing. You said it beautifully, trauma does not play out equally across a corporate population just like opportunity isn’t play out equally. So are we investing in the right people? Are we sharing power? What does that actually look like? Are we funding ERGs who are collecting the data and who are helping everybody understand what it’s like to work at your corporation? Are we funding the inclusion experts who need the resources to figure out a differentiated solutions approach? I’m not sure that we’re there yet. And that’s the thing I’m most worried about.

Ellen McGirt:

We’ve got somewhat of a shared vocabulary. People are asking consultants, and they’re asking inclusion experts for the right thing. They’re talking about allyship, they’re talking about privilege, but I don’t see the systems in place to share that power yet. And I think black women are going to continue to be exhausted and continue to be underrepresented. And if black women are parents, they’re going to be even more exhausted because the burden of raising children safely in this environment is just a terrifying prospect.

Celeste Headlee:

I mean, I want to be fully into totally honest here. I mean, I literally wrote an entire book on how to avoid burnout, but I’m burnt.

Ellen McGirt:

Oh, Honey.

Celeste Headlee:

I’m absolutely exhausted after this past year. And I wonder if over the course of talking with all the people that you have, I mean, even I am just overwhelmed and I know how to avoid it. Like I know literally what I’m supposed to be doing in order to keep myself healthy. So I can’t imagine what it’s life for most people, but I wonder what you have learned that might be helpful to someone else who feels just exhausted at this point.

Ellen McGirt:

I wish I had that perfect advice, and you really are the expert, and I know that’s true, but I can tell you that the people around me, who I ask and who I consider to be experts, the first thing that they encourage everybody to do is to be honest about where you are, whatever kind. And maybe you can help put better language to this, is that do an actual inventory of self, of mood, of nutrition, of rest, of access to the outdoors, understanding where you are in the context of your life. And then if you can, even if you have to write down a list or get someone to coach you through it, start making more powerful requests of the people in your life to give you space to rest and to heal. I’m hoping that there’s enough of that common language out there. That’s not just sort of short term resilience, let’s just take 18 hours and bounce right back, but really make bigger changes to your life.

Ellen McGirt:

I think the great resignation that we’re talking about has roots in this quest for meaning and purpose, which comes up a lot for people who are burned out. Is this really what I want to do with my life? If we are going through a global near death experience, where do I want to be next week, next year, next 10 years? These are really rich conversations. Having them makes me feel better, finding people you can talk to about this makes me feel even better. I wish I had better advice except to say, you’re absolutely not alone, that this is absolutely real. Absolutely real.

Celeste Headlee:

What advice might you have for, let’s say, a white person who’s in leadership? What can they do to ease some of the burden, not just on black women, but on any of their workers of color or their female workers, or differently abled workers, anyone who might be feeling that trauma and that burnout to a higher degree than average?

Ellen McGirt:

Can I tell a quick story about that?

Celeste Headlee:

Yeah.

Ellen McGirt:

So one of the things I never expected to have to cover as a business journalist was the violent deaths of black people, and I took it upon myself that I absolutely had to report on this. And that means I had to watch the videos, which I had no personal training for. And sometimes I do it so you don’t have to, but I wanted to verify that this is something that you need to pay attention to if you care about race and equity. And it took an enormous toll on me that I didn’t go quite expect. And I make it a little emotional telling the story. But then one night I noticed my husband, who is white, was busily on his laptop next to me, as we were getting ready for a bed, and he said, “Honey, you probably already know this, but there’s been a shooting.” And I just looked at him and I said, “Oh yeah, yeah?” And he said, “Yeah, I’m going to check it. I’m just going to watch, and maybe it’s nothing.” And I was like, “Okay. And I paid no attention to it.”

Ellen McGirt:

And he watched. It was Ahmaud Arbery. And he’s like, “I’m sorry, Honey, you have to check it. I’m sorry.” And I said, “That’s okay.” And then I started to dawn on me the next day or so that he had noticed my anxiety and my pain around this part of my life, and he took it upon himself to get there first. Now, he’s a white man, able bodied and tall, all of the things that make him majority culture, there is no way he’ll ever have the kinds of fear that I have walking through the world or my fear of the police. But he got there first, so I wouldn’t be alone. And on the off chance, he could take it away from me the anxiety of do I have to watch this? And it hit this huge opening for me, is that he was attempting to share my fear in the best way that he could.

Ellen McGirt:

And when I understood what he was trying to do, I started thinking about the ways that we can be that for each other, that if you were in a position of allyship or strength or privilege, or just working with people who are different from you, they walk through the world differently than you., they are afraid of different things than you, and they often are celebrating different things than this, whatever it is, finding mechanisms to ask better questions for the purpose of sharing their fear. And I don’t know how to institutionalize that yet. Maybe you and I can write a book on that together, because you’re very good at that, but what does that look like? If you’re in a position of power and you’re thinking about people out there, and you understand that they’re afraid of something that’s different from you, what would that mean for how you would create benefits for them that would help them stay closer to their family? Or flexible work options or bonus structures that would let them take their anxiety down, but acknowledge that you understand that their life is different from you.

Ellen McGirt:

I’ll give you a really quick example. We acknowledged the rise of violence against Asian Americans with a Fortune Connect event, brought all of these amazing people on from graduate students, to big company CEOs and big company executives to talk about their personal experience. This was an identity conversation. This was a safe space. We were there to listen. I think we had like 12 people join this. Every single person said the most painful part of this experience from the model minority myth to the rise in violence to all of that was that they were desperately afraid for their older relatives, typically their parents, every single person.

Ellen McGirt:

So now when I talk to my Asian American colleagues, or if there’s an event or some kind or holiday, I always inquire for their parents, and on Mother’s Day or Father’s Day, I say, “Are you going to talk to your mother or father? Could you please let them know how much I cherish you and how much you mean to Fortune?” Every single time. It has changed my relationships. It would change to see that something is special for them that is on their mind, and I can just touch it. I don’t know how that translates to policy, but it has changed my relationships.

Celeste Headlee:

There is though this conundrum in that companies have been expressing their dedication to inclusivity for years, if not decades, companies have put out statements that they value diversity for years, if not decades, have been spending, by some estimates, billions on diversity consultants and diversity training, and we are just not seeing the needle moving. Have you gotten any insight into what it is that we’re doing that’s not working?

Ellen McGirt:

So this is usually where I would make a consultant joke, which I’m not going to do.

Celeste Headlee:

You absolutely can. I am here for the consultant jokes.

Ellen McGirt:

I think the number one thing I would say is that the interventions that powerful people felt comfortable green lighting were ones that were designed not to change the power structure in any way. That’s some lightweight training, a couple of town halls, an intern program that goes nowhere. Any kind of actual intervention that required people typically in the middle of their career, people typically who are majority culture in all the ways to do different has not happened until recently. And we’re only now starting to see some of that happening and some of the discomfort around that. And I have to believe that it boomerangs out into the world with all of kinds of the strange division and misinformation that we’re seeing out there. The fact that the critical race theory issues and the school curriculum issues stems almost directly from former president Trump’s banning of bias mitigation training, or any kind of race awareness training through the federal work system.

Ellen McGirt:

It’s like, boom, it just sort of went sideways from there because that’s really what we’re talking about. We’re talking about new ways of sharing power and new ways of investing in structure. If you are a majority culture person and you don’t know anybody who is different from you, you’re not going to be in a position to even evaluate or understand what you’re green lighting. If you look at the primary job of inclusion is to notice who was not in the room in your supplier network, in your board, in your executive suite, in your hiring high potential pools, and why. The why is the hard part, and I think that very few interventions in the past have ever addressed the why. And that’s where we lose people from birth to C-suite.

Celeste Headlee:

There is an idea, one that I in full transparency agree with, that the existence of diversity departments and diversity consultants represents a failure in company policy and procedure. That diversity and inclusion, if it were truly embedded in the company’s practices, they would need a special specific department to be looking out for it. When you talk about making changes that are really impactful, what do you mean? I mean, the fear is that people are going to lose their jobs, right? Is that what you’re talking about?

Ellen McGirt:

Yeah, it is, I know. It doesn’t have to be zero sum and I’m not sure I have a good answer, but I agree with you. It’s like having a clean air department, it’s like, well, why do we need that? I don’t understand.

Celeste Headlee:

Exactly.

Ellen McGirt:

What do you do all day? And I do talk to a lot of very nervous white executives. It’s sort of my sweet spot here at RaceAhead. And I say to them, and I do mean this sincerely, “You are 40 to 50 years old and you, white man, have done everything anyone has ever asked you to do since you were born. And that includes get potty trained on time and go to boy Scouts and play soccer and get into the right school, get out of the right school, get into the right marriage, all of that stuff, now you’re here, and you feel like we are asking you to do something different and we’re changing the rules of who gets to succeed.” And I think that’s the hardest part is figuring out how to talk to majority culture people about how the world actually is. Not that it’s changed, but that it has been invisible to them until this point, and they’re going to have to work together with other people to reinvent work in a rapidly changing world where more ideas are necessary to solve the problems that we have and not having a bigger sense of purpose. And a sense of urgency really helps, but that piece is the hard piece.

Ellen McGirt:

So things that do work are making sure that senior executives who are whiter, majority culture are actually paired with younger, rising executives of color or women or other underrepresented people, and actually create relationships with them. Their job is to remove barriers. The only way that you’re going to understand the barriers that people actually face, if you take it upon yourself to do them. It’s one of the most effective mechanisms that we’ve seen that research says works. But the other thing is that this is a sticking point, is that there’s the pipeline issue. There’s actually plenty of talented people who don’t look from central casting, who’s name is not John, he didn’t go to certain kinds of schools, and they even have the proper “credentials.” But some of them have some really interesting work experience that can be repurposed and developed on the executive track or on these big jobs.

Ellen McGirt:

And we’re consistently not choosing these people because I do not see enough cultural courage to incorporate talented individuals who have a tremendous contribution to make and will continue to grow in their leadership career and welcome them even early in their career, but certainly in the middle of their career. And that is, I don’t want to say that this is a white people problem, but in so many ways it is. This is a conversation that has to happen at that level about what does it mean to be white? It had an origin point. It has contours. It has a shape. It has a reason for being. And once you begin to understand how deeply embedded it is in everything we do and see and eat and read and go and watch, being able to unpack that for yourself becomes easier. But that hard part, that first part, we can’t do it without it.

Celeste Headlee:

So here is the difficulty for me, who is constantly trying to help people talk about this more, it’s that when people of color, especially women of color, bring up issues of an unfairness or inequity in the workplace, they’re punished for it. They’re not believed, they’re not seen as credible, even other people of color tend to see them as troublemaker. White men, especially, are usually rewarded when they bring up these issues, and they’re believed, but it’s really difficult to get them to speak up. How do we convince… So there’s two prongs to this. How do we change this paradigm where people of color are punished for speaking up about inequity and injustice? And how do we incentivize white men to speak up more?

Ellen McGirt:

Yeah. I don’t think that there is… This is where I welcome the consultants to the conversation. I don’t think it’s possible without a lot of work, a lot of concerted work, difficult work. Constancy, not consistency, constancy is a message that comes from the top where senior leaders and CEOs and boards, hopefully, begin to model the uncomfortable conversations, begin to model not knowing, begin to model making mistakes and winding them back and moving forward, begin to adopt the kinds of tools and mechanisms and meetings, which would be whatever works for your culture, the kinds of words that you use to flag a certain kind of conversation, where white majority culture people, white men who take a risk and stand for somebody else is acknowledged. And to begin to create the cultural competence where when a black woman takes a risk and flags something, and does not have a good experience, that is called out. And it is held as developmental opportunity for anybody who was unable to accommodate her.

Ellen McGirt:

Intel has something called a warm line, which I was really impressed by, which gave a safe place for underrepresented professionals there to call in if they were not having a good experience with a manager or in a meeting sort of that granular stuff. And that put a ticket in the system and the ticket was not a complaint to HR, the ticket was, this is a developmental opportunity for you, majority culture manager who missed it. I think that reframing is just one of the kinds of best practices that I’ve seen that seems to work in certain cultures, but it has to be differentiated. It has to fit to your culture, to your team, to your company, and that has to come from the top.

Ellen McGirt:

And that means that there’s got to be some sort of… I’m not trying to like paint a picture of C-suites getting together and face-painting and crying and trust falls and stuff like that. I’m not trying to take a picture like that, although I’m enjoying it, but if it does not start there, and the soul searching does not start there, and the CEO is not prepared to ask the dumb question and to model learning out loud, nobody else is going to do it either. It’s just the way the hierarchy works.

Celeste Headlee:

The article last month for RaceAhead said that there’s still reason to be optimistic about corporate diversity and the push for racial equity in our workplaces. What reason is that? Where is the source of that optimism?

Ellen McGirt:

I know. I know. That was a wonderful interview that my colleague, Jonathan Vanian, did with a wonderful young DEI leader named Dr. Evelyn Carter, who’s now the president of Paradigm, one of the many consultancies that have propped up in the last decade or so that have been taking us sort of a data-driven and scientific approach to the kinds of conversations that need to happen and the interventions and the tools and the way to organize meetings and flow and all that stuff. And so anytime you talk to someone like Dr. Carter, anybody would feel better because she has been able to create an environment where the folks that she talks to, particularly who are white, are vulnerable enough to tell her where they are struggling, where they’re afraid, and to go through a process by which they become more fluent in the language of inclusion, which is a humbling act.

Ellen McGirt:

So with just the right amount of hydration, blood sugar, or rest of my system, I read something like that, and I talk to Evelyn and I’m like, “Yeah, okay, we got this.” And when you think about what corporations are like, the Fortune 500 would be like, I want to say, the 16th largest country in Africa or the 14th largest country in Europe, if it was all one big conglomeration. And you think about that kind of scale, if it’s a highly competitive environment and people are moving from company to company and everybody wants talent to do well, and now where everyone’s worried about the environment and sustainability, if even a fraction of that population becomes smart about this and becomes urgent about this, and starts thinking about a sense of purpose, and if we’re going to die tomorrow, we might as well go out, feeling good about humanity and having made a big difference, and social justice is something that I can understand, then you’ve got a chance of really influencing the larger culture. The scale I piece of it is the part that I think is worth thinking about.

Ellen McGirt:

And the other part is the younger generations coming up, who are coming in with a sense of desperation about the future, coming in with a tremendous debt burden from their studies, and just mad as hell, not willing to take it anymore, I say that, and every time I talk about younger generations making a difference, I flash up to a picture of young men in khakis and tiki torches, so I know it’s not everybody, right? It’s not all of them, but there’s enough, there is enough who believe enough in system change that they’re willing to put some of their life force into it. And there’s power in leaving too. We can’t AI our way out of everything. And if people opt out, they’ve got power.

Celeste Headlee:

Okay. I do want to talk to you about Sweet Equity Media, because I love it, but I wanted to get one more piece of advice for you on those who do choose to opt out. We know that the great resignation is being driven largely by women. What should people think about when there’s sort of weighing, do I stay or do I go?

Ellen McGirt:

Oh, that’s a good question. I wish I had a good answer. I think it’s different for everybody. I think that one of the things that I think about is, is it safe for me to stay? Is it safe for me to stay? Because uncertainty is hard for everybody and nobody knows really what it means to give something up, to give up a mourning for something else and all the love and all the flowers for anybody who left because they needed to take care of their children or an elder parent or an elder relative, and simply could not figure out a way to do it any other way. So for them, I would say, I love and support you, and I promise you your skills and your heart and your intellect will not go fallow. You will be back. You are doing what you need to do. You are coming back and will be there to welcome you.

Ellen McGirt:

But if you really unable to stay is a different question, must I go? Is my voice heard here? Is my spirit heard? Am I safe? Are my ideas welcomed? Can I live with the knot in my stomach at the weekly meeting with the person who does the thing, the thing, the thing? And at some point, if you simply can’t say, “I can’t make myself safe here while I get my bearings,” then that should factor into your decision to make a different choice.

Celeste Headlee:

Do you have confidence that there are places to go that are safe? Are there enough companies at this point, creating inclusive environments, that there is a destination at the end of that journey?

Ellen McGirt:

I think there’s enough of a critical massive conversation around it that’s real, knowing that people are people and that there’s always going to be a messy business with people, but that you are more likely to find a place where you can be you and you can work. You may not be able maybe making the same money. You may need to retrain yourself. You may need to think about your journey in a different way. I think sometimes that’s the hardest part. It’s like, you’re born and you go through school and then you accomplish and you have children, and then every day, your life continues down the road the way you always pictured it. Can you give up that picture? And what pops up when you give up that picture? To me, that’s always the hardest part when I think about changing my life.

Ellen McGirt:

But I think about companies like PayPal, for example. I’ve had a chance to study their culture a little bit. Dan Schulman is the kind of CEO who really walks the walk and he pays people correctly. He thinks deeply about what it means to actually make a good living, as opposed to having a minimum wage conversation. They did this whole financial wellness initiative, which I just thought was fantastic. They think about the impact that the work of financial services has on actual communities. They’re investing in black-owned banks. They’re investing in good idea. I mean, the conversation feels good. I know a lot of their employees. It’s the kind of modeling of rethinking what the purpose of a business is, that it still feels new for lots of people, but it feels better. It feels better.

Ellen McGirt:

You think about Chobani, which is also just purpose-driven. I think they’ve changed the conversation on what it means to be a refugee and refugees who work and all that kind of stuff. And the fact that they’re about to IPO, and I hope that goes well, but that you can become a billionaire or create a billion dollar business with a very constant message of doing the right thing and caring about communities and living humbly, and eating yogurt is an important thing. That’s an important success story in a culture that keeps score.

Celeste Headlee:

So let’s talk about Sweet Equity Media, which great name. I wonder what launch… I mean, you just started this in the summer of 2021. What sparked it?

Ellen McGirt:

Actually, it was just January. So I’m still a baby. I had to postpone for all kinds of things I wanted to think it through. I’ve been so inspired by and exhausted by what I’ve discovered with RaceAhead over the last almost six years. And every time I pull together a newsletter, I feel like, oh, I needed more words. I needed more time. I needed more people. There are better solutions here. I just touched on them. All the things that you and I just talked about could be its own vertical of knowledge. And there’s so many great resources and researchers out there that could amplify the conversation if I could just, not just clone myself, but just get other people with other perspectives and great journalism chops to do it with me. And it’s just not a thing that Fortune can invest in above and beyond the way that they already do.

Ellen McGirt:

They’re a full service business magazine, and the fact that race and inclusion and leadership is the biggest part of my part of it, I wanted to be able to invest in that and build a newsroom around me. I’m 59 years old now. If I was going to be invested in that way in corporate media, I would’ve been by now. So I’ve decided I was going to do it myself on the platform that I feel very proud of. So the idea is to begin to explore the kinds of solutions that may not be super exciting, that may not have Elon Musk associated with them or crypto, whatever, but actually make the world more equitable. And again, it’s from birth to C-suite, what does that look like? Big part of it is going to be corporate solutions and a big part of it is going to be cultural stuff.

Ellen McGirt:

I’m still very focused on the violence against Asian Americans, which seems to have dropped off the headlines, but a steady stream of short reported journalism about the issues, about solutions wherever they exist. And the thing that I’m most excited about is that I plan to publish them in English and Spanish, some Chinese, and any other languages that are relevant, just to get various constituency on the same page with the same information about what’s happening in the world, rather than just focusing on one demographic. I want to focus on solutions and what it means to make a better, more equitable world and to pay people correctly. Celeste, I am so offended by the way journalists are paid or researchers are paid. So as subscribers start rolling in, you will get the highest quality correct reported journalism in multiple language that I can afford. I will never ever underpay anybody. I just hate it, hate. Sweet Equity, everybody gets paid.

Celeste Headlee:

I wonder if in the end that this is how it changes when people of color and women of color start being the executives, just starting their own thing. Is that sort of how this ultimately gets resolved if it does?

Ellen McGirt:

If you’ve got the energy for it, that’s what I see happening. I see anybody who’s been underestimated, underrepresented, overlooked, and that is anybody in America who fits a certain demographic is doing what they can for themselves or banding together or supporting somebody else who’s leading the way. And that’s been true in venture capital and investment. That’s been true in media. I mean, just an amazing array of small and interesting newsrooms are popping up all over the place. I love The 19th, for example. I know you do too. And if you have the energy for it, the tools have been easier to leverage. If you don’t have the energy for it, I don’t think there’s any shame in that. Our job is to live our lives and be healthy and love people around us and be good community members and be engaged in the big conversations. Some of them happen in the ballot box.

Ellen McGirt:

If you can get to it, I’m going to try to help you get to it, but that is also a way to be a gift in the world, is to actually engage in the community around you. I think whatever way we get there, we get there.

Celeste Headlee:

So last question for you. You come home or you’re done, finally finish your last interview of the day, your last business call of the day, you’re tired, it’s been a tough week, and you realize, at this point, I need to engage in self care. What does that look like?

Ellen McGirt:

I have become a real hiker. I moved to St. Louis when I got married and there’s a lot of really beautiful hiking hills around me. And as much time as I can spend in nature, I absolutely. I just need the air, I need the grain. Lately I’ve been staying with my mom, who’s not doing so well. She’s almost 92. And we’re making some really hard decisions about what she needs for her care and for her health. And so that’s made self care a little harder, but I did set up a little tiny seating area outside our house, pandemic safe. And that’s where I listen to some music when I’m not doing some walking around and just take a moment to enjoy just the air and being still. That’s really made a difference for me lately.

Celeste Headlee:

And any last things you’d say to the thousands of women who’ll be hearing your voice and have gone through it, like you and I both have?

Ellen McGirt:

Yeah. I just want you all to know how much I love you, and I see you, and I believe in you, and in my darkest days when I don’t know what to say to any of you, I hold you in my heart and you bring me forward. And I’m so grateful to all of you. I wish I could wrap my arms around each and every one of you. We don’t do that in pandemic anymore, but I try to do it in my work, and I hope you feel it.





Registration Opens June 9

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